The walls continue to close around Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and his regime. Following opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s self-proclaimed ascent to power, several nations immediately threw in their support for the “new government,” including the United States.
The latest political bodies to weigh in on the Venezuelan upheaval is the European Union. On 26 January, the European Council released a statement containing what was essentially an ultimatum to the Maduro regime. The declaration condemned the “indiscriminate violence from the authorities” targeting “popular demonstrations” which have taken in support of Guaidó and reiterated the Union’s “full support to the National Assembly,” which is the “democratic legitimate body of Venezuela” and also the body which Guaidó heads. But the real kicker was the not-so-veiled threat of intervention if Maduro does not capitulate: “The EU strongly calls for the urgent holding of free, transparent and credible presidential elections in accordance with internationally democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order. In the absence of an announcement on the organization of fresh elections with the necessary guarantees over the next days, the EU will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership in line with article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution.”
Let there be no mistake what the EU leadership is saying here. The article 233 reference was the same one used by the U.S. State Department in their declaration of support for Guaidó. Article 233 is the legal mandate of the National Assembly —the body which Guaidó heads— to remove the president from power. When the EU says they will “take further actions” to support that process, there is little room for interpretation on what that means.
The U.S. Stance
Already on the very day Guaidó named himself interim president, President Trump brought up —albeit implicitly— the possibility of America intervening in Venezuela. Trump warned that “all options are on the table” for a U.S. response if the Maduro government seeks to hold on to power by force.
And this was not the first time Trump has made such a remark.
In talks with his top aides at the White House over the past year and a half, Donald Trump has repeatedly raised the possibility of invading Venezuela. Trump brought up the subject of an invasion in public in August of 2017, saying: “We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary.” In addition to the public statement, Trump reportedly brought up the idea in an Oval Office meeting. He asked top aides about the feasibility of intervening militarily in Venezuela. Trump administration officials are said to have taken turns in trying to talk the president out of the idea, their basic argument having been that any such military action would alienate Latin American allies who had supported the U.S. policy of punitive sanctions on the Maduro regime.
To be sure, that line of reasoning certainly has merit. Unilateral actions of such magnitude are bound to have diplomatic drawbacks. But the current situation in Venezuela and the uncompromising stance of Maduro could be creating more sympathy for an intervention option.
Tensions on the Continent
Venezuela is surrounded by several countries firmly opposed to the Maduro regime. These nations include Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru. Mexico is still considering when to come out in support of Guaidó. From his list of foes, Maduro probably has to worry most about his southern neighbor: Brazil. Maduro has been highly critical (to say the least) of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro since the latter took office earlier this month. To be fair, Maduro has good reason for this. Bolsonaro recognized Guaidó as the “legitimate president” of Venezuela even before Guaidó declared himself temporary leader. A full week before the current crisis began, the Brazilian president committed to assist the opposition movement facing Maduro. On 17 January, Bolsonaro released a video statement in which he vowed to “everything possible to re-establish order, democracy and freedom” in Venezuela. Bolsonaro made his remarks while standing alongside Miguel Angel Martin, the head of the opposition-appointed Venezuelan Supreme Court in exile.
Suspicions of Brazil’s secret plans vis-a-vis Venezuela have in the past sparked accusations against other regional countries of conspiring along with Bolsonaro. Back in October, shortly after Bolsonaro won the presidential election, Colombian authorities publicly rejected news reports that their country would support any effort by Brazil to topple Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. At a press conference, Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said the government “rejects and denies” the contention that Colombia has any plans to use force in Venezuela. More recently, Bogota had to rebuff similar accusations regarding alleged American plans. When asked whether Colombia was going to provide the U.S. with military bases needed for a possible operation against Venezuela, the Colombian Defense Ministry responded with a blunt “No.” A spokesperson for the Ministry added that there has been no preparation on the part of the military for any action against Venezuela: “Troops will remain at bases, there has not been and there is not going to be [any] redeployment of troops.”
Despite Bogota’s denial of its own conspiring, rumors of possible armed interference involving Brazil and the U.S. are not coming from nowhere. For at least the past several months, Brazilian troops have been parked on the border area with Venezuela, the northern Roraima State, waiting for an order to attack. The United States, which maintains permanent bases in Colombia, Central America, and the Caribbean, has also been keeping troops in a state of alert. In addition to on-the-ground readiness of troops, administration officials are seemingly setting the diplomatic stage for a possible conflict. On 26 January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the United Nations, urging leaders that “the time is now” to support the efforts of Venezuela’s opposition. “The United States stands with the Venezuelan people,” he told the UN Security Council at an emergency meeting called by the U.S. “We’re here to urge all nations to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people as they try to free themselves from former President Maduro’s illegitimate mafia state,” adding that all nations must “pick a side” in the Venezuelan conflict.
The Russian Factor
Bringing another volatile factor into the fray, reports have now indicated that military contractors connected to the Kremlin are currently deployed in Venezuela. According to reports, the private force was flown into Venezuela immediately after Guaidó claimed power. Their mission is allegedly to beef up security for Maduro in the face of opposition protests. Last week, Russia —which is one of, if not the primary, source of revenue for Venezuela’s current socialist government— promised to stand by Maduro despite the National Assembly’s attempts to depose him.
According to international media, quoting a leader of a local chapter of “paramilitary Cossacks,” the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about four hundred. This is hardly a force that could threaten a joint operation between Brazil and the U.S., but the fact that Moscow has put its people on the ground in Venezuela is sending a strong message. Russia is backing the Maduro regime all the way. If the U.S. wants to intervene, it will run the risk of confronting their people on the ground and a possible conflict with Russia. Of course we have seen this tactic before, on the other side of the world. In Syria, Russian contractors deployed along with regime forces ended up clashing with U.S. forces in February of last year, in an incident that became known as the Battle of Khasham. The event could have easily blown up if not for Russia playing the plausible-deniability card.
Russian support is, with little doubt, the single biggest element giving Maduro the confidence he needs to remain defiant. However, Moscow won’t be able to help Maduro if he can’t keep his own people in line. The question will come down to loyalties within Venezuela’s security forces. While Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino is a staunch supporter of Maduro, the leanings of top to mid-level commanders are less clear. Recently, however, there emerged one indication as to where the hearts of Venezuela’s military brass may lie.
On 26 January, Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, told U.S. media that he’s breaking with President Nicolás Maduro and supporting Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed interim president. “I stand by the roadmap of acting President Juan Guaidó,” Silva said on a video shared on social media. Silva said the roadmap included “ceasing the usurpation of the executive power,” the “beginning of a transition to a new government” and “free and transparent elections for all Venezuelans who want to participate.”
Silva, of course, is able to express his sentiments openly, being on the safety of U.S. soil. It is very likely that his comrades back in Venezuela share these very same feelings. Without an obedient, reliable security apparatus, Maduro will not be able to survive the international pressure that is mounting by the day.